News Abortion

Bill to Grant Legal Rights to Fetilized Eggs Passes North Dakota Senate, Heads for House

Robin Marty

Reproductive rights advocates' hopes were dashed as the North Dakota Senate passed a bill, by a tight vote of 24 to 23, that will grant legal rights to fertilized eggs.

Reproductive rights advocates’ hopes were dashed as the North Dakota Senate passed a bill, by a tight vote of 24 to 23, that will grant legal rights to fertilized eggs. The bill will next be heard by the predominately anti-choice state House before heading to the Republican Governor. It would put into effect an immediate ban on abortion, many forms of birth control, and infertility treatment as soon as it is signed into law, as opposed to a separate measure which would allow voters to decide for themselves whether a so-called “personhood” law should be created in the state.

According to Parents Against Personhood, a website tracking personhood legislation attempts throughout the country, a similar bill passed the House with a 68 to 25 majority in 2011, making this year’s vote a near sure thing for anti-choice advocates. It’s a scenario that greatly worries some North Dakota physicians opposing the bill due to lack of exceptions, especially in the case where a pregnancy is doomed or could threaten the life of the person who is carrying it.

“SB 2303 will restrict a doctor’s ability to treat doomed pregnancies, putting women’s lives at risk, said Siri Fiebiger, a physician from Fargo who practices obstetrics and gynecology, in a written statement released by The North Dakota Coalition for Privacy in Health Care. “Ectopic pregnancies are and miscarriages can be life-threatening if not treated in a timely fashion. Complications during pregnancy should be managed by physicians according to the patient’s needs and values, without involvement by politicians. Health care providers will be confused by this law and they will fear litigation. It is impossible to legislate for every medical scenario.”

There is a strong possibility that a “personhood” ballot amendment in 2014 would have failed. Now, with a legislature bent on putting it into action, it will become law even against the desires of the voters on whom it will be imposed.

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News Politics

North Dakota Voters Reject ‘Personhood’ Measure

Teddy Wilson

North Dakota voters on Tuesday rejected a ballot measure to amend the state constitution to define life as beginning at conception. A similar so-called personhood amendment was defeated in Colorado as well.

Read more of our articles on North Dakota Measure 1 here.

North Dakota voters on Tuesday rejected a ballot measure to amend the state constitution to define life as beginning at conception. A similar so-called personhood amendment was defeated in Colorado as well.

The North Dakota measure was defeated by a margin of 64 percent to 36 percent, though anti-choice advocates say they are unfazed by the results and will fight to put a personhood measure on another North Dakota ballot.

Public opinion polls leading up to Election Day had indicated that the vote might be close, and political observers in the state said that the measure was likely to be approved.

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Opponents of the measure campaigned on the effects it would have on not only abortion rights, but also how it would affect a variety of reproductive health-care decisions facing North Dakota women.

North Dakotans Against Measure 1 chairman Dina Butcher told the Bismarck Tribune that the rejection of the measure was a victory for women and families.

“This measure was defeated because of the impact it would have had to families’ end-of-life decisions, because it would have ended in vitro fertilization in our state, and because it would have banned abortion without exceptions for rape and incest victims or to save the life of the woman,” Butcher said.

Lawmakers placed the measure on the ballot with the passage of SCR 4009 in March 2013. It was passed narrowly in the state senate by a 26-21 vote, and then overwhelmingly in the house by a 57-35 vote.

The primary sponsor of the bill, state Sen. Margaret Sitte (R-Bismarck), was also rejected by voters, losing her bid for re-election to Democrat Erin Oban. Another prominent supporter of the measure, Rep. Bette Grande (R-Fargo), lost to Democrat Pamela Anderson.

Oban defeated Sitte by a surprisingly wide margin of 58 to 41 percent. “I’m very humbled and shocked to be honest,” Oban told the Bismarck Tribune. “I was expecting a very close race.”

Supporters of the measure were disappointed but undeterred by the defeat.

“We are, of course, very disappointed with the results of the balloting tonight, but we are not deterred or dissuaded from the cause of life, nor will we give up the fight,” North Dakota Choose Life chairman Janne Myrdal said in statement.

Once reason supporters may be optimistic is that when the state legislature convenes in January, Republicans will control significant majorities in both the state house and senate. Lawmakers passed anti-choice legislation during the 2013 legislative session, and they can do so once again in 2015.

The defeat adds to a growing list of electoral defeats for the personhood movement. Similar personhood amendments have now been defeated in Colorado three times—2008, 2010, and 2014—and once in Mississippi in 2011.

News Abortion

As Voters Consider Abortion Rights Crackdown, Two North Dakota Women Speak Out

Teddy Wilson

North Dakota voters will decide on Election Day whether to add an amendment to the state constitution defining life as beginning at conception. While the debate surrounding so-called personhood amendments often takes the form of competing ideological and political differences, the human impact is often omitted, or wildly distorted.

Read more of our articles on North Dakota Measure 1 here.

North Dakota voters will decide on Election Day whether to add an amendment to the state constitution defining life as beginning at conception. While the debate surrounding so-called personhood amendments often takes the form of competing ideological and political differences, the human impact is often omitted, or wildly distorted.

North Dakota’s radical “personhood” amendment, giving full legal rights to zygotes, is widely seen as the country’s most sweeping crackdown on abortion rights.

Becky Matthews was born in South Dakota and moved to North Dakota in 1984 while she was in the fourth grade. “I’m a good ‘ol Dakota girl,” she said in a heavy Dakotan accent during an interview with Rewire.

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“I grew up in a very conservative church,” Matthews said. “I was never going to be a woman that needed an abortion.”

After having two children, Matthews and her husband decided that they wanted to once again grow their family.

Matthews remembers the exact date. “It was May 30, 2007.” She was 16 weeks pregnant and an ultrasound had revealed that she was pregnant with identical twins. A day later she received a phone call and was told that the twins shared a placenta.

A week after that phone call, it was revealed that her doctor suspected twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, a rare condition that causes the fetuses to share blood. One fetus becomes a “donor” and the other becomes the “recipient.” At the time only 14 health-care facilities in the country could treat such a condition.

Matthews and her husband flew to Cincinnati to seek care at one of those facilities.

After testing and consultation with medical professionals at the Cincinnati Fetal Center, Matthews and her husband carefully considered their options. One option was for Matthews to go on bed rest in an attempt to prolong the pregnancy until at least 24 weeks of gestation and attempt to deliver both twins early. Another option was an invasive laser surgery to separate the fetuses, which could have had negative consequences for both of them.

The final option was termination: abort the “recipient” fetus to save the “donor.”

Matthews and her husband flew back home to North Dakota on Father’s Day weekend. She was nearly 20 weeks pregnant. All of the options were on the table. On the Tuesday after Father’s Day she went to her doctor’s office for an ultrasound.

“We didn’t have heartbeats. I delivered them on June 21, stillborn.”

Matthews looks back at her memories at the Cincinnati Fetal Center and the difficult decisions she and her husband had to contemplate and comes to one conclusion: “There’s no right decision, they all stink,” she said, her voice brimming with emotion. “I remember saying to my husband ‘How did we end up here?’ Three weeks ago we were in a healthy pregnancy. How did we get here?”

“I remember looking out the hospital window at the busy street and thinking, ‘Everyone else’s life is going on.’ I felt like my life was never going to be the same. To be honest, after a loss like that, your life is never the same,” she said.

While Matthews never struggled with questioning the decisions she and her husband made, she questioned her faith. “It was really hard to make sense of how … you’re supposed to be six months along and all of a sudden you’re visiting a cemetery.”

When a friend shared with her that she had an abortion due to a genetic diagnosis, she realized how close to that decision they had been. “I was like, that could have been me,” Matthews said.

North Dakota lawmakers considered HB 1305 during the 2013 legislative session, raising red flags for abortion rights advocates nationwide. The bill would have made it a Class A misdemeanor for a physician to perform an abortion based on gender or a genetic abnormality. Matthews said that reading about the bill in the local newspaper made her angry. The conversation around HB 1305 had no consideration for the difficult decisions women and families are forced to make.

“I just kept thinking about how difficult it is to make those decisions and how dare [lawmakers] think they should tell a family what their decisions should or should not be,” said Matthews.

After contacting reproductive rights advocates in the state, she told her family that she would testify against HB 1305. Matthews would also testify against other anti-choice bills, including SCR 4009, which was the legislatively referred amendment that became Measure 1, the ballot initiative North Dakotans will vote on next Tuesday.

After being signed into law by Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R) in May 2013, the Center for Reproductive Rights, on behalf of Red River Women’s Clinic, filed a federal lawsuit challenging HB 1305. The lawsuit was later dismissed at the request of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Matthews said she’s been motivated to speak out about her experience in part because of the countless people who have shared their stories with her privately. Many opponents to the anti-choice measures, she said, feel they can’t speak publicly about their opposition.

“There is some family that will hear my story and not know it will impact them for years to come. I hope they know that whatever decision they make is OK,” she said.

Many of Matthews’ friends and family consider themselves “pro-life.” But, she said, “they still love and respect me” because they see her story as “different.”

“It’s not different,” she said.

“I don’t feel horrible about the decision I made. I feel horrible about the people who called me … a baby killer”

Angie Brown, born and raised in rural North Dakota, had an abortion a quarter century ago. She has never spoken about her abortion publicly, and said that she has only told three people in those 25 years. Brown said the stigma surrounding abortion in her home state is so pervasive, she fears that if her story became publicly known she would be shunned by friends and family. She even fears being fired from her job.

Brown spoke to Rewire on the condition that a pseudonym be used to protect her identity.

Brown was sexually assaulted when she was a student in college. Her first boyfriend in the wake of the rape pressured her into having sex, and she became pregnant as a result. She was 19 years old. She had quit college due to the trauma of the assault, and then her boyfriend left her.

“I didn’t know what to do,” she said.

Brown went to a crisis pregnancy center—facilities that are infamous for distributing false information and deploying scare tactics—but she was concerned about the singular focus the counselors had on her carrying the pregnancy to term. “It was pretty clear that she was more interesting in the pregnancy than she was me as a human being,” she said of a CPC staffer.

Brown’s mother was the first person who told her abortion was an option.

“Don’t you have to go to the cities for that?” Brown asked her mother. “She said that I could go to Fargo. I actually had no idea that there was a clinic in Fargo or that [abortion] was an option at all.”

This was in the late 1980s.

When Brown confided in a friend about the situation, he put her in touch with his sister, who had both carried a pregnancy to term and had an abortion. “She didn’t tell me to do one or the other. She just told me what it was like to have an abortion, and what it was like to have a baby,” Brown said.

At nine weeks pregnant, Brown made an appointment to terminate the pregnancy. A friend drove her to Fargo, three hours away from her home, where she had an abortion.

Now 44 years old, Brown is a college graduate with a career. She is also a mother to a 13-year-old son. She does not regret her decision.

“I don’t feel horrible about the decision I made. I feel horrible about the people who called me a ‘slut’ and the people that called me a ‘baby killer,’” Brown said, “knowing that those people could be living next door to me, or working with me or could be my friends and family.”

“The stigma is the judgement people place on you for doing what you know is best for you,” she said.

Recent research reveals how difficult it can be to even study the stigma of abortion, and advocates at organizations like the Sea Change Program are working to both understand and combat the stigma surrounding abortion.

Both Matthews and Brown think that if more women spoke about their abortion experiences, it might change minds and add much-needed voices to conversations dominated by extreme anti-choice politicians.

“If I’m a group of 50 women or 100 women that came out and said, ‘Yes, I did this,’ that would be different. But as far as I know, I’m a group of one,” Brown said.

Matthews worries about the consequences on women and their families if Measure 1 is passed on Election Day. “I’ve thought about that,” Matthews said, no longer able to control her tears. “I have two daughters, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to stay here and raise them.”

“For a girl that loves horseback riding and doing stuff with the cattle—I just don’t know how long I could stay [in North Dakota] and fight.”

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